Pyramids and Ziggurats (1)

Last May, before I unwisely took a hiatus from this blog to get involved in the election, I posted this story idea, created from when a friend told me the story of their experience at a “regional burn” or mini-Burning Man, and recapped here:

  1. In the woods in rural Georgia gather a thousand people, 5% real artists, 20% half-ass artists, 20% middle-class people whose idea of a great four-day weekend is camping and watching a shitshow while on big drugs, 10% skeevy dudes who want to ogle topless women, and 45% broken, traumatized hippies.

  2. Most of these people gather in prearranged groups of about 20 people, usually with some kind of theme, but there is an area set aside for people camping solo or in small groups. This area is a bit sketchier. It should also be noted that the parking area is well away from the camp: people drive their cars on a one-lane road into the camp, dump their stuff, take the car back, walk to the site and set up.

  3. The event is carefully privatized: sympathetic landowner, distant neighbors, wristbands and entry fees: the point is that local law enforcement can’t just show up and get in without probable cause, because this would end up with 995 people getting busted for drugs. The volunteer security patrol has to be really euphemistic over the radio because law enforcement is monitoring it.

  4. During the (very hot) day, a hippie girl passes out, so an ambulance is allowed in, followed by a sheriff’s car. But the girl is clearly just suffering from heatstroke, not intoxication, so no probable cause.

  5. Late that night, a man is found dead from what looks like an accidental fall. He was a solo camper, someone who a few people recognize as a decent guy peripheral to the scene. But dead is dead, and now the sheriff’s team gets to come in and investigate. But some of the campers are attorneys, and the organizers are well-versed in the law, so while the sheriff can cordon off the event, they can’t ransack anyone’s camp, especially since the death appears to be misadventure.

  6. The next morning, however, the local medical examiner fingerprints the dead guy, and he pops right up as a person of interest in an Atlanta homicide case. Also, the injuries aren’t consistent with an accidental fall.

  7. Diana and Mustapha drive down to RuralWorld, meet the sheriff. talk. The dead guy was an important witness in a homicide case: anyone who knew him in Atlanta knew he liked to go to these giant burn parties. Sheriff wants to bust in and sort through everyone; D/M convince him otherwise. Wait, no: the sheriff is a woman.

  8. They meet with the sheriff and the organizers of the burn, and once they explain to the organizers that they think there are murderers loose in their camp. the organizers reluctantly agree to let D/M into the burn undercover, set them up as volunteer security people and let them roam.

  9. Each of them is paired up with a more experienced burner and starts to patrol. Both the burners are of course batshit crazy like foxes, so this is occasion for infodump and comic relief. Throughout these scenes, we play against type: Diana the kinky liberal is like WTF this is stupid, and Mustapha the old guy is like the 21st century rules. “Acidheads STILL like pyramids!”

  10. Each of them separately explores the area of the camp near where the dead guy pitched his tent. We find out from hilariously vague witnesses that there were three guys, who appeared out of place, camping near that spot, but that they have since moved.

  11. The climactic moment for most of the campers arrives: the giant structure is ceremonially set aflame. D/M are observers and are pressured to participate.

  12. Almost immediately thereafter, it starts to rain, not very hard. This is good, say their companions, because it will make for people tripping under tents instead of going balls-out outside. It’s a quiet night, except for dueling techno and bad karaoke.

  13. Mustapha’s partner leads him into the woods because tripping campers often wander up there and get lost. Diana’s partner helps her find people who might know who the mystery campers were.

  14. Up in the woods, a call comes through on the radio that there’s a car in the camp trying to get out. Mustapha’s partner panics: “This usually means the people driving it are tripping way too hard, and we know the sheriff’s out there someplace.” They go running through the woods, Blair Witch style.

  15. They’re too late, but Diana and her partner are right there. Diana waves to hippie guarding one-lane road to freedom to back off and let the car through, relying on the sheriff, but the hippie misunderstands and tries to block the car. Driver shoots hippie, Diana shoots driver, Mustapha catches up, Diana’s heretofore trippingly useless hippie partner does something awesome and takes down one of the remaining thugs. Mission accomplished: they had come because they knew the witness would come, and they thought they could get away, but they didn’t know that nobody’s supposed to bring in a car at night, so they alerted “security”.

  16. We end with Diana wanting to go home and Mustapha wanting to enjoy the party. “I think that girl liked me.”

    I’m bringing this one back up because I intend to write the story over the next two weeks, and I want to hold myself to it. If I’m going to do it from the detectives’ point of view, the chronology is going to have to get mixed up. It has to start with #7, and with Diana being the one with a romantic view of an event like this and Mustapha very skeptical. From there, we get the rest of the background.

 

New Year and Novel 3

I had the chance, for the first time in about four years, to take a three-week break without having any responsibilities at all, including travel. It was restful and restorative. I’m just at the end of Act III writing the novel now, though I wrote very little over break on purpose. As this month goes by, I’ll post a lot of excerpts from Act III while I write most of Act IV. The goal is to have the manuscript ready to be looked at by agents and publishers by the beginning of June, which is very doable.

I’ve rewritten the outline for Acts IV and V. Relatively few of the changes will impact the narrative already present on this site, except one: Mario will no longer be the desiccated corpse in Act II. Instead, he’ll be the victim at the beginning of Act IV, while the Act II corpse will be that of a mentally challenged homeless man who will get a line or two in the very first couple of scenes.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll begin with putting Act III up on the site.

Wednesday’s Other Mass Shooting

Everyone’s heard the news by now about the married couple who shot up the man’s work colleagues this past Wednesday: a friend of mine said, after the initial reports giving the shooters’ names, in a remarkable example of gallows humor: “It’s nice to see that Muslims have assimilated into American culture well enough to participate in ordinary workplace mass shootings instead of making it an Islamic thing.” But of course, the shooters turned out to be doing it for twisted-Islam reasons, so never mind, thanks for trying.

But there was another mass shooting this Wednesday, here in Georgia:

SAVANNAH, Ga. — One woman is dead and three males are injured after an early morning shooting Wednesday.

The shooting happened near the 100 block of West 33rd street around 1:00 a.m.

Savannah-Chatham police are still looking for the suspect. The victims range in age from 17 to 52. They are Jamond Heyward, 17, Brandy Council, 34, Jarrett Myers, 40, and Jeran Washington, 52.

Council died at the scene and the men were transported to a local hospital with what are being described as non-life-threatening injuries.

Right now, we don’t know anything about these people. It could have been a domestic dispute, or a drive-by, or a case of mistaken identity. The scariest part about 21st-century America is that there are so many potential proximate causes for mass shootings—and so many guns with which to do it. What would be the headline for days in nearly any other civilized country is second place for the day in ours.

I don’t care for guns, myself, but my opinion isn’t really all that important. I’ve written about guns before, so I’m going to let that do the talking. Here’s the first scene from an unpublished story, Stalkers, Zealots and Sentries:

Alvin Smith died as he had lived: surrounded by guns and the other paraphernalia of anxious masculinity. Detective Diana Siddall looked around the living room of the loft Smith had rented in Atlanta’s West Midtown neighborhood, which in the boom times had been overbuilt with condos for the aspirational, but even five years after the crash was half-empty and mostly rentals. The loft was a case study in what a long-divorced fortysomething woman like her Did Not Want: a weightlifting bench; a tremendous plasma television; posters of football players, of the text of the U.S. Constitution, of Barack Obama eating a slice of watermelon, for god’s sake. A workbench held many firearms, including an assault rifle mounted in the place of honor. In front of the television lay the long-barreled Patriot Arms .44 Magnum that Smith had been cleaning when it discharged, putting a neat round hole in the point of his chin and blowing the back half of his head over the back of the enormous, oversized brown leather recliner that was the room’s sole chair.

Diana crouched down, peered up at the stand. “Removed the clip but forgot there was one in the chamber?”

“Something like that,” said Dave Keller, chief of Crime Scene. “Gun fetishists all over the city are already feeling embarrassed on this idiot’s behalf.”

“Maybe a suicide?”

“Inconclusive. His hands test for gunshot residue, but they would either way.”

Diana looked up as her partner Inspector Mustapha Alawi cast a shadow across Smith’s body. “Hey,” she said. “Find any clues?”

A sardonic grin underneath his pirate’s beard. “Nothing but survivalist magazines to read, and all he has in the kitchen is light beer and ground beef.” He crouched down to look at Smith’s face. “No note, if that’s what you mean. Internet history is what you’d expect: porn, guns, the kind of bloggers who think Fox News is for liberals. Door was locked. He’s real pissed at someone named Alice, who I’m going to go out on a limb and say is his ex-wife. You want to put fifty bucks on this one, I’m going to take accident.”

“Yeah? I’m thinking this guy had a moment of clarity looking around this place, found his life insurance policy, saw the suicide rider and decided to muddle the issue.”

Keller noticed both detectives were staring at him. “Don’t ask me. I had all night here, I might could find something. But it’s Friday, and it’s ninety degrees outside: I’m guessing we got about half an hour before somebody else gets shot.”

 

Alice was indeed the ex-wife. Her clothes hung loose on her; she wore running shoes; her hair was the color of a fresh copper penny. She made an effort not to look relieved. “Cleaning his gun? I told him a thousand times those things would be the death of him. You better come in and have tea.” When they were served, she continued. “You’ll find a whole list of suits, countersuits, custody battles, and then a restraining order, just from typing our names into your computers. So I figure you’ll be suspicious–” She heard a thump from upstairs, and lowered her voice. “But just so you know, I was at Grady High School all afternoon and evening. Just walked in the door when y’all called. My son’s school play. Bye Bye Birdie, can you believe they still put that one on?” She sighed. “I’m going to have to tell him. Talk about mixed emotions.”

Mustapha put his teacup aside. “Ms. Smith, do you think there’s any reason your husband–”

“Ex-husband.”

“–would take his own life?”

“I thought you said it was an accident. Well, I always figured if Alvin was going to kill himself, he’d do it about thirty seconds after he shot me. For a few months after I got the restraining order, he seemed to calm down. Then, he joined this awful group of men who are even worse than he was. They egged him on to start claiming that I was abusing the legal system–” More thumps from upstairs, then footsteps coming down. Two boys, late teens, a matched pair of a type that hadn’t existed when Diana was young. Trim, pretty, buff, gay, had never even heard of the closet. The sort that made Diana’s own daughter sigh at the unfairness of it all.

“What’s up?” said the taller one.

“Roger, these are the police–”

“Oh, not Dad again.” The other boy inched closer to him.

“It’s complicated,” said his mother. “I’ll explain later. David, are you spending the night?”

“No, ma’am,” said the other boy. “My mom has a conference call; I have to get my sisters ready for school.”

“We just came down for snacks,” said Roger.

After they were safely upstairs, Alice shook her head. “I’m going to have to tell him. You see, Roger was what started it all. He used to like dresses, as a little boy. Alvin couldn’t handle it. I came back early from a business trip and caught Alvin beating Roger with a belt for being a sissy. Filed for divorce the next day.” She finished her tea. “As if anything could have beaten the sissy out of Roger.”

Listen to a Story for Free: “Measure Twice, Cut Once”

Enjoy it here.

Listen to a Story for Free: “Cross Lap Joint”

This is an old story of mine, pretty much the first one I’d let other people read. I wrote it in maybe 2007 or 2008? I should keep better track.

Hear it here.

Novel 3: Act I, Chapter 3, Scene 3

TOC page here.

Last in this chapter we get the victim’s family. To homicide detectives, family are always the first place to look for suspects; watch Law & Order, and if there’s a teenage daughter in the family, she did it. Up until now, Diana and Mustapha had better leads, but now they’re back to square one. There’s someone out there who knew Alex’s movements well enough to impersonate Rosa. Is it any of these guys, and how can you tell?

Alex Dawson was survived by a father and at least three brothers, and all four men looked just like Alex. To Mustapha, it looked fake, like they were a bunch of actors picked to be brothers. All of them were drinkers, too; it was usually a little harder to tell with black guys, because they didn’t get the red in the cheeks and nose, but Mustapha had been pretty good friends with the bottom of a bottle back about 20 years ago, and he was hard to fool. The dad was already half in the bag on what smelled like gin and tonic, and Mustapha would bet his Mustang that the tallest brother had a pint bottle of something in his coat pocket. None of them looked surprised, but Mustapha gave them credit for being broken up about it, anyway.

“I don’t want you to think I’m cold, Officer,” said the youngest brother, who had already smoked three cigarettes in about five minutes. “But Alex’s lifestyle? We all knew where it was going to lead.”

The father shook his head. “Just tell me my boy died with a little dignity: can you do that?”

Mustapha knew Diana wanted to answer the question, but he also knew none of these guys wanted to hear it from a cute little white girl. “Mr. Dawson,” he said, “what did the patrol officer tell you when he came to get you?”

“He didn’t say nothing. I was at church; he spoke to Reverend Carter, and they came and told me Alex was dead. He done freeze to death?”

“That would be my guess, Daddy,” said the middle brother, who was about three sizes fatter than the other three men. “That or some kind of overdose.”

“Oh, dear,” said Diana.

“What are you saying, honey?” said the father.

“What church is that, sir?” asked Mustapha.

“Cascade Road Baptist,” said the youngest brother. “Reverend Carter has been a great source of support for our family.”

The youngest brother lit another cigarette. “Are you trying to tell us something, Detective?”

“Well,” said Mustapha, “I’m sorry to bring you bad news, but your brother’s death wasn’t an accident.”

“He’s going to burn in hell,” said the father.

The middle brother placed a hand on his father’s shoulder. “The Lord will have mercy on him, Daddy. Alex was a troubled soul.”

“I’m sorry,” said Diana. “I think you’ve misunderstood. It wasn’t a suicide, either; we’re investigating Alex’s death as a homicide.”

“He was murdered?” The father actually seemed happy about this, or at least happier. “Who done it?”

The oldest brother nodded. “A lot of those people Alex hangs out with were bad news.”

Mustapha held up a hand. “We don’t know who it was, folks. But we’re going to find out. Now, I know you’re not going to appreciate this, but we need to know where each of you were between about six and ten o’clock this evening.”

“Now wait just a God damn minute,” said the father.

Now the middle brother was holding his father’s hand. “It’s okay, Daddy. They always think family members are suspects.”

“Most of the time,” said the youngest, “they right.”

“I don’t mean no disrespect,” said the father. “I’m just upset because my son is dead. Even though I knew this was going to happen a long time ago. I was in church, and so were Tyrell and Charlie here.” He indicated the two older brothers.

“Two weddings and a funeral,” said the oldest brother. “We run an electrical supply company, and we do lights and sound for the church.”

“And if I went and talked to Reverend Carter,” said Mustapha, “he’d say you were there the whole time?”

“None of us killed Alex, Detective,” said the youngest brother. “I’m not much of a churchgoer, but I had my kids this afternoon. I took them to the indoor water park out by Six Flags.”

Mustapha panned his gaze slowly from brother to brother to father to brother. The middle brother was the only one that seemed hinky, but he looked like a lifelong small-timer. “Thanks, fellas. I’m sorry for your loss. When was the last time any of you saw Alex?”

“Fourth of July,” said the oldest and youngest brother at the same time.

“Came to the family picnic,” continued the youngest. “Behaved fine, too.”

The middle brother nodded. “First time in years he didn’t fall in the pool or try to wrestle the dog.”

The youngest brother started to laugh, then stopped, embarrassed, then laughed again. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s okay, Ray-Ray,” said the father. “I seen him about two weeks ago.”

“You did?” said the middle brother.

The father nodded. “I just saw him on the street, on Memorial, when I was driving back from that job over in Kirkwood. So I took him out to lunch.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” said the oldest brother.

“Cos I knew you were going to get that tone in your voice, Tyrell. And you were going to give me lip for giving your brother $50.”

“Dad!”

“You see what I mean? I knew he was going to spend that money on liquor, but he’s my own son.” A tear streamed down the man’s cheek. “My own damn son.”

“Mr. Dawson?” Diana used her polite social worker voice. “Can you tell us anything that seemed unusual about Alex, when you saw him?”

The man slowly shook his head. “He was the same as always. No place to live, no job, no future… but none of that mattered to him.”

Mustapha sighed. “This is going to be kind of an awkward question, but was Alex a Muslim? Did he ever talk about converting to Islam or anything like that?”

“Islam?” said the middle brother. “Don’t they forbid alcohol?”

The youngest brother was still trying not to laugh. “Alex never went to church since he was about thirteen.”

“It’s true,” said the oldest. “He never had any use for the Lord.”

Diana gave it one more try. “Maybe he was… trying to turn over a new leaf? Hook up with something that totally prevented him from drinking?”

The father snorted. “Girl, you never knew my son. A bottle of cheap whiskey was the only church he ever knew.”

Who done it? Any of them? In the final version, the brothers will be a little more clearly differentiated. But do any of them seem like they have any reason to kill their brother? Dad gave him $50; the middle brother is a little hinky; the youngest isn’t a churchgoer so is the most likely one to go for Islamic iconography. But none of them benefit directly from Alex’s death, and they all seem to have accepted him for who he was; so for now, another dead end, which is the main theme of this chapter.

On to Chapter 4.